What is the best way to eliminate bullying in schools? When, if ever, do zero-tolerance policies work?

Over the past two decades, zero-tolerance bullying policies have been widely implemented at K–12 schools across the U.S: one out of every five students will be suspended in a given year. Under zero-tolerance policies, any act of bullying or cyberbullying carries an immediate, harsh punishment. In recent years, however, these policies have become increasingly controversial for a number of reasons: inconsistent application (particularly along racial lines; a Texas study showed that African-American and Hispanic students were far more likely to be expelled from the classroom for disciplinary reasons), excessiveness of the punishment, failure to address the needs of those doing the bullying, and inefficacy at preventing future acts of bullying. Other disciplinary methods have been proposed and adopted, with varying levels of success.

Answers

Gina Badalaty, Parent of 2 kids with disabilities, Professional Blogger

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I think that bullying needs to be approached on several levels, but more often than not, I disagree with zero tolerance and it's consequences. There are many alternative tools that can come into play to prevent bullying, such as inclusion, a school wide positive behavior plan (implemented by a specialist), character building with plans such as Connect with Kids and PeaceBuilders. These are some of the suggestions from the National Education Association as alternatives to zero tolerance policies. My childrens' school employs Responsive Classroom, which allows children to interact regularly to discuss issues and emotions outside academics. One of the things our school does very well is to teach children within a class and grade that they are a microcosm of a community. They are taught to "see" and acknowledge what other students are doing when working, without judgment, for example.

It's important, however, to note that running out and getting a program or just putting zero tolerance policies in place are only partial measures, at best. The school needs to approach the issue as a team - and that team must include the students. Our school has not had chronic bullying issues but neither have we been bully-free. Other components that can negatively impact the problem of bullying even when steps are taken include lack of a coherent and consistent school leadership, a lack of awareness or involvement from staff and teachers, an unclear statement or mission approach to the problem by the school as a whole and the inability for parents and staff to accept that a child may be a bully. That last one can be a missed problem in a highly inclusive school when there is an attitude of "it can't happen here." One of the failings of our own school in past years had been the fact that some in leadership so embraced the value of each child that no child was believed to be capable of cruelty. Parents, teachers, staff and students need to face the reality of the situation in order to honestly address and remove it, but it requires that they work the middle road between extreme zero tolerance policies and complete denial of the problem.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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Conversations about kindness, conflict resolution, and compassion need to happen on a constant basis in order for kids to see that bullying--though an easy option--is not a good option for dealing with issues of difference. When students start having these conversations at a young age, we can help them learn how to cope with challenges of bullying. This needs to be a conversation at home as well. When parents encourage bullying behavior at home, a child is going to emulate that behavior at school. When we focus on cooperation instead of competition, we can teach students to see each other as allies instead of as competitors. The Kind Campaign is a great resource to help kids, parents, and teachers think about how to combat girls bullying other girls. A Mighty Girl offers this list of books to help parents start the conversation about bullying. The best way to eliminate bullying is to not let it start by communicating to young children that we all matter.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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All 50 states have anti-bullying, zero tolerance legislation in place that require an immediate response to bullying when identified. Although zero tolerance sounds formidable and often mandates punitive discipline, in practice it accomplishes very little and typically makes matters worse. Punitive discipline such as suspension and expulsion often disproportionately impact students of low income, hispanics and students of color who may be better served by intervention, not punishment. And long drawn out bullying investigations mandated by the law are often handled by poorly trained staff who further traumatize the victim and "out" the bullied student as a stool pigeon. The bullied student is then further ostracized within the larger community. Because zero tolerance policies lack intelligent, protective, productive and creative implementation, bullied students often live in fear of their tormentors AND a system that then exacerbates their situation and damages them further. Unless a case of bullying is egregious with threats to life and property (in which case you don't need zero tolerance, you need a call to the police), zero tolerance often results in a slap on the wrist for those doing the bullying, and greater trauma for the victim.

The truth is, zero tolerance is a rigid, poorly thought out response because it fails to address bullying effectively. And this makes it seriously flawed. Zero tolerance does not help the bully, or those being bullied. It suffers from uneven and biased application. It suffers from a failure to arm the right individuals with the right therapeutic and behavioral tools to deal with complex peer situations. It does not recognize the unique pyramids of social power that exist in many schools and drive bullying behavior. Zero tolerance policies may be lorded over students as strict and uncompromising, but they lack real power. And the kids know it. Because zero tolerance requires disciplinary action like school suspension or a lame investigation, the bullying behavior often resurfaces, but under the radar in a new form. There's no policy against exclusion, indignities, or hostile slights. You can't legislate who's in and who's out. You can't legislate the act of intentionally excluding a child from what goes on socially outside of school. You can't legislate manipulation and ostracization. But this is where, when and how bullies do their best work.

Although zero tolerance for bullying may be stated policy, it can be pure window dressing for a school. This is because it often masks the most disturbing relationship between a school and bullying: that a majority of school staff tolerate the daily psychological aggression and abuse practiced by their students as just the natural goings on of school life; especially in middle and high school. The level of tolerance school staff demonstrate in their school community contributes to, and empowers bullies. The prejudices and biases they bring to their job as educators further compromise how likely they are to help. Many a bullied child and parent has reached out for help only to be told the student is too sensitive, or there is nothing they can do about mean girls or even athletic rites of initiation. (The national news reported on how the latter went down - felony assault charges - and a shake up of high school athletics across the nation.) The point is, school administrators can create a school community defined by mutual respect, or one defined by fear and power imbalances. The administrative leadership in a school has a greater impact on bullying, than a zero tolerance policy. Students' perceptions about a school's environment, social order, rules, safety, fairness and staff attitudes are inherently linked to bullying and victimization. In fact, a CNN study commissioned by Anderson Cooper and University of California - Davis found that 80% of students who are the victim of indirect aggression and bullying in their school (manipulation, ostracization, spreading rumors) won't turn to an adult because they believe it won't help.

But one of the biggest reasons why zero tolerance fails, is because it does not address a core issue: why students bully each other. Bullying requires three players: the bully, the victim and the bystander. Little attention has been paid to bystanders, but they play a powerful role in bullying situations. Bystanders who passively accept a bullying situation communicate their fear and acceptance of the bully's dominance and social power. In turn, this contributes to a climate of fear and and acceptance. As for the bullies themselves, they too have established a particular role and identity for themselves: it is one of long-standing aggression and dominance. Bullies do not suddenly emerge as bullies when they are older, or in high school. Bullies have been bullying since early childhood, even as early as nursery. Bullying often plays out in commonplace verbal and behavioral indignities that communicate hostility, aggression and negative messages. Young children can and do engage in this behavior at early ages.

As a result, early childhood intervention programs aimed at identifying childhood aggressors make more sense than waiting till one of them brings a stun gun to school, or hounds a peer to suicide through unrelenting social humiliation. Early educators can play a critical role in identifying young bullies, stopping them and redirecting them to more social behaviors. It is possible to prevent the progression of a young bully. Consider a scenario I read about. A group of young children sit at a table. The dominant child begins a series of questions, "Who likes cookies?" The dominant child raises his hand, and so do his followers. The child asks another question, "Who likes birthday cake?" Again, the child raises his hand, and seeing this, so do his followers. He finally asks "Who likes Sam?" (a boy who has been happily and innocently playing along.) This time, the child purposely does NOT raise his hand. And neither do the followers. Sam has been targeted as someone to be excluded; a social bully has manipulated his peers to accept this. Schools can adopt programs that teach social skills and empathy through guided activities to help young children develop the tools to stop bullying. In such a program, the other children - the critical bystanders - would have stopped the bully from excluding Sam.

Peer Leadership Programs and initiatives for older kids likewise hold the greatest hope for stopping bullying. These programs are an attempt to empower the community at large to adopt strong social skills and shift a community ethos towards one of inclusiveness. Sound Pollyann-ish? Maybe. But a whole school full of bystanders no longer remaining silent can become a potent force. As in the early childhood programs, empowering students to speak up may be more effective than suspending a school bully who will only return, potentially more vengeful than before. That same UC Davis study found that the most common form of bullying is social aggression, that students engage in a constant verbal, emotional and cyber battle in their daily school lives to rise to the top. This social combat is the stuff of which modern day bullying is made of. It no longer looks like the archetypal jock threatening to punch someone out. The UC Davis study suggests that if bystanders can shift the social norm, bullies may find themselves alone in their battle, and ultimately, less powerful.

Brittney Miller, Graduate student instructor, gifted education instructor

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I agree with Gina Badalaty that bullying should be addressed on many levels. Having consistent and periodic conversations with students about bullying are important, and these conversations should happen at school during a time that's made safe for students to share their feelings and concerns and at home. I also think it's important that the employees of a school (teachers and staff) and parents work as a team to eliminate bullying by defining clear outcomes and roles for whatever plan they choose to implement. A zero-tolerance policy should not be the way to deal with bullying as this does not teach or correct the bully's behavior, but if a student is a bully, he/she needs to be identified as such, shown kindness and compassion, and before assigning punishment, given the opportunity to change his/her behavior.

Amanda Morris, College Professor, Writer, Advisor, Writing Coach

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Open communication, safe spaces, and trust are essential if the bullying problem is to have any chance at resolution. Teachers can incorporate such films as Bully or any of the resources for K-12 listed here at Teaching Tolerance. Administrators can make it clear that students who feel intimidated and victimized can safely speak up and will not be punished for doing so. Parents can use the teacher resources listed above and in others' comments in the home to start discussions with their own kids about their bullying experiences. This holds true at the university level as well. People of all ages need to know that they can reach out for help and won't be ostracized, stigmatized, or punished for speaking up. This is a systemic problem as much as it is societal or educational. But if everyone at all levels makes an effort, we might have a chance to reduce bullying and create a more accountable mindset for those who witness bullying.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher

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I agree with the above experts that zero tolerance policies are very often damaging to the students involved in bullying, teach them very little about proper social interaction, and often create more socially unsatisfactory situations for them later in life. It also creates a more rebellious mindset against school in general, and can cause apathy and discouragement towards doing school work or participating in school activities in general. That said, I believe that action must be taken when rules are broken, and students are taken out of their comfort zone, and are unable to feel safe and comfortable in a school environment. This is where indeed, parents, teachers, administrators, and community-based organizations alike all must collaborate to find healthy, fun, realistic and viable outlets for students who are often acting out aggressions and frustrations due to the lack of care they find at home or in the community. The more mediation sessions and lectures that students are able to be exposed to to generate a stronger awareness of why this behavior is harmful is also very necessary, and the more outlets a student has, the better. I agree that hotlines and teachers making themselves available to students to have someone to talk to is always key. Many students are afraid that they either have nobody to talk to, no place to go, or that no one will understand what they are going through, and this includes the bullies themselves, so this communication is the most vital and effective way to help protect all parties involved. I believe that things like suspensions and zero-tolerance policies should be used only as last resorts for students who are repeat offenders and have proven that they cannot respond to the other avenues presented to them. But they should not be enforced immediately and without first giving students a chance to show that they can reform their behavior because most students will simply react badly to this type of discipline.

Nikki Morgan, Tutor, Writer, Aspiring teacher, and Parent of two

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I generally agree with Dr. Smith, however I disagree that zero tolerance is an appropriate means of dealing with bullying. Expelling or suspending children from school for bullying doesn't actually teach the child anything about how to be a caring, compassionate individual. Actually, it only seems to communicate the message to the child that he or she can't be trusted to treat others well. Several studies have shown that expelling children only creates more problems for these kids later on down the road (i.e. they are much more likely to go to prison later in life). The fact that students of color are over-represented as students being expelled or suspended from school is also a red flag for me that these zero tolerance policies are not immune to structural racism. If we are to create school environments where bullying is rare or non-existent, I think the key is actually to do away with the zero tolerance policy completely and instead move towards a restorative justice model with explicit instruction for all students, teachers, and staff in non-violent communication or other forms of empathy-based conflict resolution.

Dr. Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Currently Program Director at Aviation Academy, Co-Author of Awakening Your STEM School

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The best way to eliminate bullying in school is to triangulate the efforts between the parents, the students and the school. In this joint venture, awareness needs to be raised on why it is important not to bully as well as the ramifications of bullying where students feel like they have a place to go when there is an initial problem.

Schools across the nation have designated October as Anti-bullying month where they are providing many assemblies and activities on ways to thwart bullying and how to respond to it. The problem is that once the month is over, students will forget and some of the issues may surface.

Here are some ways to help students reduce bullying: peer mediation, a hotline where they can call or text, report it to a staff member and send out frequent reminders in strategic locations. Zero tolerance is an appropriate means but the administrator must prove that there is an existing and on-going problem where it targets student(s).

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